A Premier League Weekend In Review

Home and Away

littlew00dy / shutterstock.com

littlew00dy / shutterstock.com

There’s something odd happening this season, there’s no doubt about it. Of the 40 games that have been played so far this season the home team has won just 9 of them. That’s less than a quarter of all games being won by the team that are supposed to have a significant advantage. What’s going on?

There’s an argument to be made that the cost of tickets to see games in the Premier League is so prohibitive that home fans are no longer providing the atmosphere they used to. Traditionally speaking football is a working class game, with young men heading to the ground after having a couple of drinks with their mates and making an almighty racket in favour of their team.

Now Premier League grounds have been invaded by what Roy Keane called the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’; middle class folks and daytrippers being the only ones who can afford to go regularly to the game. They are reluctant to sing and shout, unwilling to get involved with the chanting and not keen to get in the face of the opposition.

For the more popular teams it’s also increasingly difficult for friends to sit together. Clubs that have a huge fan base and regularly sell out their ground – like Liverpool and Manchester United – can’t accommodate large groups of people sitting together. The result is that the groups who have been drinking and enjoying their time together before the match starts are then separated and thrown to all four corners of the ground when they go to take their seats. This means they end up sitting next to strangers and can perhaps be forgiven for being reluctant to get up and sing on their own.

There’s also the fact that people paying so much money almost expect to be entertained. Too many fans nowadays feel that they are there to experience the atmosphere rather than be a part of it. The days of persuading the referee to work in your favour by sheer force of will from the crowd are gone and neither can supporters intimidate the opposition players if they’re not willing to get vocal from their seats.

Questions of tactics can be asked, too. With teams getting better and better at playing on the counter attack, with speedy forward players able to hurt the hosts by breaking forward and punishing mistakes, there’s no longer the same advantage the home teams used to enjoy. In Liverpool’s game versus West Ham, for example, the Hammers were able to allow Liverpool to control the ball but hit them with precision and expertise on 3 different occasions by going on the counter. The Reds, meanwhile, struggled to break down a resolute West Ham defence.

Whatever the reasons, something isn’t working for the home team this season and it will be interesting to see how long the trend continues for. Can atmosphere’s improve enough to give the home team the boost they need to get results over the line? Will home teams start to do enough tactically to break down the deep lying banks of the visiting teams? When Manchester City’s billions are the only thing helping a team win at home and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea draw one and lose another at Stamford Bridge, you know something strange is going on.

All For Swans And Swans For All

Right now, after just four games in the league, Swansea are sitting in 4th position. Would it be the most surprising thing in the world if they were still there come May next year? On the face of it, of course, you’d say yes. Yet the reality is that Gary Monk has put together a brilliant little squad with some top quality players and they all know exactly what they’re doing, From Gomis up front to Williams at the back and Fabianski in between the sticks, everyone at The Liberty Stadium understands their job.

Tomasz Bidermann / shutterstock.com

Tomasz Bidermann / shutterstock.com

So far this season the Swans are one of just three teams that are unbeaten alongside Leicester City and Manchester City. Whilst the Manchester club have their billions, however, and Leicester have yet to be tested as far as their opposition is concerned, Swansea have played Chelsea and Manchester United. A draw at Stamford Bridge is a result every team in the Premier League would be proud of, whilst a victory over Manchester United, even at home and even in the post Alex Ferguson days, is nothing to be sniffed at.

Andre Ayew was an astute signing by Gary Monk and the fact that he came in on a free makes it all the sweeter. He was instrumental in the Swans’ victory over United this weekend, controlling the play from the right, scoring the equaliser when he was pushed up alongside Bafetimbi Gomis before playing the pass of the season so far when he set up his erstwhile strike partner for the second.

As for Gomis, he has now scored four goals in four games and joins Riyad Mahrez as the top scorer in the Premier League and has netted nine goals in his last 10 appearances. Despite being a striker of distinctly average ability, he is the perfect foil for the way the team plays. He occupies defenders, gives his midfielders options and knows how to put the ball in the back of the net.

Swansea’s next four games are an away trip to Watford who have yet to score a goal at Vicarage Road, a home game against an Everton team that seem to be playing Jekyll and Hyde so far this season, a trip to St. Mary’s to play an underperforming Southampton team and a home match against Spurs who have only managed three points out of the four available, are yet to pick up a win and have only managed to find the net three times.

Would you rule them out picking up twelve points from those three games? They’re not easy fixtures by any stretch of the imagination, but Monk will be looking at the opposition and how they’ve all started the season and will surely be confident that his team can at least go unbeaten. Regardless of how the rest of the season goes it’s clear that Swansea are not planning to be cannon fodder in the Premier League any time soon.

Crystal Are Diamond

Another team that have been impressive not only so far this season but also stretching into the last campaign is Crystal Palace. The Eagles have been impressive under the stewardship of Alan Pardew, with the former Palace player boasting a somewhat incredible 61.54% win ratio as the club’s manager. Their victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge made them just the second team to win at Chelsea’s home ground with Jose Mourinho as their manager. That’s two home defeats in 100 games.

The club rode their luck at times, with Chelsea managing 26 shots on goal and whilst only nine of those shots were on target, that doesn’t tell the full story. The Eagles defending well throughout the game, managing several goal line clearances and doing their utmost to keep the Blues at bay.

That said, Chelsea managed to convert just under a third of their shots on goal into shots on target whilst Palace’s ratio was closer to 50%. They managed 13 shots on Courtois’ goal and six of those were on target.

That tells the story not only of the match, but also of Crystal Palace’s play under Alan Pardew. They are no longer the leaky, uninspiring team of Neil Warnock’s stewardship, nor the boring defensive team that Tony Pulis makes his hallmark. Pardew’s win ratio makes him the most successful manager of Palace’s history, even if he’s only been in charge for 26 games. Can they maintain it moving forward?

So far this season they’ve beaten Norwich at Carrow Road, were unlucky to lose to Arsenal and probably wouldn’t have if Lee Mason was a referee who knew the rules of the game, beat Aston Villa at Selhurst Park and have now added the scalp of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Sterner tests are due to come after the international break, starting with the visit of a Manchester City team that is the only club with a 100% record after the first four games. Then comes a trip to White Hart Lane for a game that Pardew will fancy his chances in before another London derby when they visit Watford. Is seven points from nine an unrealistic expectation for the Eagles? Only time will tell.

Ref Justice

football referee

Referees have a very difficult job and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot. There’s no question that things happen quickly on a football pitch and it isn’t always possible for the men in black to keep up with everything. For that reason it’s difficult not to ask why on earth the authorities continue to refuse to help their officials out by using technology.

In the Liverpool game against West Ham Philippe Coutinho was sent off for two yellow cards. The first one was a booking for a refusing to get the full amount of yards from a free kick – the sort of trick every team in the league tries to pull off and referees rarely pick up on. The second was for a challenge he slid into before trying to pull out of the challenge, with Payet turning on the spot to make it look worse than it was. Though both bookings were harsh, it was understandable that Kevin Friend made them and Coutinho has to ask himself why he was sliding into a tackle when he was already on a booking.

There can be no excuse, however, for Kevin Friend’s decision to send Mark Noble off for West Ham. The Hammers’ captain made a lunge for a ball on the edge of his area and got a touch of it, barely touching Danny Ings in the process. It was a good tackle and nothing more, yet Mr Friend decided it was not only a foul but also warranted more than a second yellow for Noble, issuing him a straight red. It was a terrible decision.

Meanwhile over at The Britannia stadium Michael Oliver, who is often lauded as one of the best referees in the league, failed to maintain any sort of consistency when he chose to send of Stoke City new boy Ibrahim Afellay. The Dutchman was given a red card for raising his hand to the face of Craig Gardner after a coming together between the two players. There was very little in it, but the player had to go by the letter of the law. The problem is that raised his hand to Gardner only after the Baggies player had already given him a tap on the face with his hand. If one had to go then surely both did?

Referees will get things wrong; it’s the nature of the game. But what are the real reasons for refusing to bring technology into the game? One of the chief ones is that it will slow the game down too much, but is that really true? A contentious decision currently results in the referee and / or his assistants being surrounded by players who are furiously screaming at them. Would taking 30 seconds to allow the fourth official to watch a replay of the decision really slow things down more than that?

Another argument is that things aren’t always conclusive on a replay, and that’s fair. But why can’t a system similar to that used in cricket be employed in football? Captains, acting on their manager’s orders, can make, say, three challenges in the space of 90 minutes. If the replay isn’t conclusive then the referee’s original decision is the one that stands.

The reality of the situation is that refereeing decisions are changing games quite dramatically week in, week out. It has a huge impact on the league not only in terms of results but, because of that, how much money teams earn with their league positions. On top of that managers and their backroom staff can lose their jobs because of poor decisions.

Five red cards were shown in ten Premier League games this weekend and of those only one can be said to be unquestionably fair – Charlie Adams’ for his stamp in the Stoke versus West Brom match. The rest were contentious in most situations and outrageous in at least one. Why not help referees out so they don’t ruin games with terrible decisions and look like fools? People like Lee Mason are an embarrassment to the game, but then with Mike Riley in charge of the referees is anyone really that surprised that their performances are so utterly dreadful?

Rodgers Under Pressure?

almonfoto / shutterstock.com

almonfoto / shutterstock.com

We’re only four games in to the season, yet Liverpool’s home game against West Ham has put the manager until a little bit of pressure as far as some Reds’ fans are concerned. Brendan Rodgers arrived at Anfield full of bluster and keen to talk up his ability as a way to hide his lack of actual achievements and his constant blabber earned him some unfair comparisons to the likes of David Brent.

Yet the Northern Irishman got his team playing some of the best football in the league in the 2013-2014 season, leading most neutrals – who normally don’t have time for Liverpool – wanting them to win the title for the first time since 1990. He never quite won over his doubters, though, with plenty claiming that the team’s success that season was due to Luis Suarez.

Their point was backed up by Liverpool’s poor showing last season, limping to a sixth placed finish and getting knocked out of the FA Cup at the semi final stage by Aston Villa. When the Reds got beaten 6-1 by Stoke at The Britannia Stadium on the final day of the season plenty of people thought it would be the final nail in Rodgers’ managerial coffin. He survived, however, producing his own night of the long knives over the summer when he axed his friend and assistant manager Colin Pascoe, as well as the first team coach Mike Marsh.

For plenty of Liverpool fans, though, he is skating on thin ice and the performances produced by the Reds so far in the campaign haven’t done enough to make them think otherwise. A 1-0 win over Bournemouth at Anfield in which the goal shouldn’t have counted was followed by a 0-0 draw at The Emirates, with Arsenal unfortunate to have an Aaron Ramsey goal incorrectly ruled out for offside. Then came this weekend’s disgraceful performance at home to West Ham, a side that had not won at Anfield since 1963 when The Beatles were at the top of the charts.

That has led to a turning of the tide against the manager, with plenty of fans calling for him to go and be replaced by Jurgen Klopp before the season gets away from the club. The reality is that Fenway Sports Group, the Liverpool owners, are not going to sack Rodgers just four games into the season when they’ve spent the summer backing him to the hilt. They’ve allowed him to bring in his own backroom team and have given him the final say on transfers, reportedly allowing him to chase Christian Benteke when plenty on the transfer committee weren’t convinced he was the right player for the team.

Yet it’s undeniable that any more poor home performances against lowly opposition will result in serious questions being asked of Brendan Rodgers. FSG were reportedly considering removing the Northern Irishman in November of last year, changing their minds when Liverpool went on an unbeaten run. Should things be less than satisfactory come Christmas time then the current manager could find himself the recipient of a very unwelcome present.